Thursday, August 23, 2012

Carnival Kicks Off Tomorrow

The 2012 West Indian American Labor Day Carnival kicks off tomorrow at Borough Hall with a reception hosted by Marty Markowitz and WIADCA (the West Indian American Day Carnival Association, which hosts the Carnival). After reports of dissension among the organizers surfaced last year alongside a spate of shootings that took place over Labor Day Weekend (only two of which actually took place at the parade, but more on that in a moment), WIADCA's new president and the NYPD are making an aggressive effort to convince paradegoers and Brooklyn residents alike that this year's event will be safe and well-organized. Many Crown Heights residents, however, remain unconvinced that this year's parade will be significantly different than those in years past, as evidenced by this lively conversation on Brooklynian.

Before diving into the questions of safety, power, and culture that the Brooklynians (and many others, including readers of this blog last year) have raised, it's worth reflecting on the history of the West Indian community in NYC in general and this parade in particular. Those who receive WIADCA press releases will note the email address they use pays tribute to Shirley Chisholm, a child of Caribbean immigrants who became the nation's first African-American Congresswoman and the first African-American candidate for president in a major party primary (this year marks the 40th anniversary of her run). I realize that many residents of Crown Heights could recap this history far better than I can, but for those who are relatively new to the neighborhood or unfamiliar with the history of Caribbean America (whose capital, with all due respect to Miami, is undoubtedly New York City), a few names are as good a place as any to start. Among those from the West Indies with NYC connections are legends of the Harlem Renaissance including UNIA founder and activist Marcus Garvey, poet and writer Claude McKay, and scholar-activists Cyril Briggs and Hubert Harrison (those interested in the Caribbean contribution to the Harlem Renaissance and early-20th-century black political struggles should check out Winston James' Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia), civil rights leaders Kwame Ture/Stokely Carmichael and Bertram Baker (Brooklyn's first black elected politician), and many others. If we consider those with West Indian parentage, the list swells to include everyone from Malcolm X and Chisholm to Biggie and Jay-Z.

Why the roll call? I think it demonstrates the degree to which Caribbean and American life and history have been (and continue to be) intertwined, an observation that makes me very wary of making any sort of blanket statements about a monolithic Caribbean "culture" (the fact that "the Caribbean" or the "West Indies" is comprised of millions of people hailing from dozens of countries  speaking dozens of languages and dialects on hundreds of islands and two continents should do the trick, too) in the context of current debates about the parade. It is also serves to remind us that the West Indian community in NYC has been around a very long time, which leads to the next point - so has their parade. 

Begun in Harlem during the 1920s, continued uptown in the postwar era, and moved to Brooklyn in the 1960s, the parade has always been a site and symbol for conflicts and contests between New Yorkers of all stripes about the use and abuse of public space, the performance of "culture" and class (and whose culture), and debates about the boundaries of community. Caribbean celebrations of Carnival in the 1920s occasionally drew the ire of local African-Americans who felt the well-dressed and spectacularly costumed West Indians were putting on airs (though it should be noted, there was a great deal of collaboration between these two groups of recent migrants to NYC), and the parade was moved to Brooklyn in the 1960s in part due to the objections of Harlem's middle class leaders, who objected strongly to the loud music, drunken behavior, and "buffoonery" of the celebration. 

Despite these objections, of course, the parade has grown into one of the largest celebrations of its kind in the world, rivaled only by similar celebrations in London (where similar battles have been fought over rights to public space and the behavior of revelers over the years), Toronto, and, of course, the Caribbean (dozens of smaller events can be found wherever the Caribbean diaspora has a sizable presence). It has hosted musical legends including Mighty Sparrow and Bob Marley, and continues today to serve as an expression both of Caribbean-American cultures and as a demonstration of political power (the mayor and many electeds and hopefuls march at the head of the parade, and the floats that follow include delegations from law enforcement, unions, churches, and civic associations). Seen from this perspective, I think, it's clear that the parade, and conflict about it, aren't going anywhere. 

However, the specific question of safety from (gun) violence, which has been raised in years past and came back with a vengeance last year, particularly in our community after the tragic death of Denise Gay, warrants a different sort of consideration. (Lest we stumble into "culture" to explain violence, other "ethnic" parades have not been free from these incidents in years and decades past). As I wrote last year (and as many of the Brooklynians have noted), it's important not to confuse proximity with causality. This map by the New York Daily News from last year's awful spate of shootings might generate that confusion (52 shootings, 67 victims, 12 fatalities), but a closer look reveals that the worst day for fatalities was Friday (of which only one was in Brooklyn, in East New York), and the worst day for shootings was Sunday. Only two shootings took place on the parade route during the parade and neither, thankfully, was fatal. The parade itself may be loud, chaotic, and messy, but those are very different issues than murder.

Many argue that the parade has the effect of drawing millions of people to Brooklyn who engage in "side parties" or "street parties" that lead to drunken acts of violence. This is true, though whether it's fair to pin the behavior of these individuals on the parade organizers is another matter. As evidenced by drunken shootouts in Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx last year, parties take place on Labor Day with or without parades, and gun violence is a horrific reality in communities where masculinity and authority are to be found at the barrel of a gun (and gangsters and police both practice this), where entertainments beyond the street are few, where safety is not guaranteed (again, either from criminality or the police), and where mass unemployment, poor education, nonexistent health care, and mass incarceration have rendered young men's lives cheap and dignity hard to come by through "mainstream" channels (if you think that gun violence derives from race or culture instead of longstanding structural inequality, well, I'm not going to convince you otherwise here, but I'd urge you to get out and read some of the endless work on this subject). 

Does having the parade nearby mean that more of these parties are here in Crown Heights than might otherwise be? It does, and residents have every right to be concerned about violence. In the short run, there are steps being taken this year by WIADCA and the NYPD (see the NYDN link at the top), and the Brooklynians have some good ideas, too. In the long run, it means recognizing that gun violence is a 365-day-a-year problem in many communities (witness the terrible shooting in Crown Heights just this week), even if the parade only brings it to some of our doorsteps once a year. Seeing the parade as part of a citywide anti-violence campaign, as one resident imagined after last year's event, is a start, as is investing in the efforts of local community groups (check out SOS Crown Heights's basketball tournament this weekend, for instance).

Finally, by all means, go out and see the parade on Labor Day (photos from years past here and here). The event itself is safe for 99.999% of attendees and the costumes, music, dancing, food, and atmosphere can't be found anywhere else. Will it be loud, chaotic, and messy? Of course! That's part of the fun. See you on the Parkway.


  1. Well said, ILFA. Great food, lively crowd, the way parades should be instead of sleepy. Music, the marchers, the whining and daggering, have some fun people!

  2. Thanks ILFA! This was a great recap of the good and bad of the parade.

  3. Thanks for this. This is my last parade after 8 years of living in the neighborhood- I'll miss it. I hope the tradition lives on for many years to come.